A cheaper chemistry is flooding the battery market

While scientists rush to develop a successor to lithium-ion batteries, the market is making its own innovation, promoting a less expensive lithium-iron-phosphate battery.

“A lot of manufacturers started switching from lithium-ion batteries to lithium phosphate because phosphate is easier to get,” said Meghan Nutting, executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova, a Houston-based solar home developer.

Nutting spoke at the Baker Institute’s Annual Energy Summit in Houston last week, answering a question about shortcomings in the renewable energy supply chain.

“For the most part solar panels are pretty abundant Earth minerals. We need aluminum, glass, silicon, some copper. For the most part, it is quite abundant.”

As for batteries, which make solar power more detachable, there has been a move to components that are cheaper and easier to find, he said.

The ingredients for lithium iron phosphate are easier to find than cobalt, a vital component of the cathode in most lithium-ion batteries, traditionally mined mainly in the Congo. The price of cobalt, which was $32,000 a tonne at the end of 2017, jumped to $82,000 last spring. It has since dropped to $55,000. Manufacturers have responded to the cost and volatility by seeking alternative chemicals.

“Cobalt-free batteries, such as LFP (lithium-iron-phosphate) batteries, also offer a less mineral-intensive version of a lithium-ion arrangement and are often less expensive than their (nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide) counterparts.” According to a report released last month by the Atlantic Council, “albeit at the expense of reduced energy density and therefore storage capacity concerns such as EV range.”

Despite these drawbacks, lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries are growing in the battery market. In an August report, UBS predicted that LFP would hold 40 percent of the battery market by 2030. As the Atlantic Council points out, that’s a 25 percent increase from UBS’s previous forecast and a jump from a market share of 17 percent of LFP in 2020.

But cheaper batteries can also be harder to recycle:

MORE FROM FORBESThe innovation makes lithium-ion batteries more difficult to recycle

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